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Confusing words

January 15, 2009

Hello again,

The confusing-word syndrome poses quite a problem for learners. In fact some words have seemed so confusing that they...

...have been quietly dropped in favour of less confusing options. An example is the word “inflammable”. This used to be the word used to describe something that was, well, combustible. It derives of course from “inflame”. But the prefix “in-“ makes it sound as if it signifies the opposite of its true meaning. Thus those who label inflammable materials now describe them as “flammable” to avoid any misunderstanding.

The other day I was alerted to another example. I heard somebody on a radio news discussion say they thought a particular course of action should be”sanctioned”. Now it was clear from the context that he thought the course of action should be stopped. Therefore he probably meant that it should be discouraged by the application of sanctions against those who favour it. The problem lies in the fact that “to sanction” (verb) means to permit or authorize an action, whereas “a sanction” (noun) is a restriction that is used to dissuade people from doing something.

I could in fact have kicked myself for not making notes from another interview that I heard in which a researcher made error after error in using words the meanings of which are easily confused. My favourite from the past was from a sports’ commentator who described a missed goal in football as “heart-rendering.” Of course, there is a funny side to this but, more seriously, I think people are becoming less aware of the nuances in vocabulary.

If you have any examples, please share them with us.

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